Often unwatched by all but policy-wonks yet key to determining policies put forth by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards. These boards consult with the EPA on the science that influences regulations, particularly on individual chemicals – science that’s used to protect the public from chemical hazards. On Tuesday the House passed a bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013 or H.R. 1422, that would change how the EPA selects Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) members. The White House, in a statement from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said that if presented with the bill, the President’s senior advisors will recommend a veto. “H.R. 1422 would negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB,” wrote OMB.
The bill was sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), and passed the House on a vote of 229 to 191 – on what amounts to a party-line vote, with one Republican voting against the bill and only 4 Democrats voting in favor. All of the bill’s 21 co-sponsors are also Republican.
If passed, the new law would require that ten percent of SAB members be employed by a state, local or tribal government, regardless of any scientific expertise. It also would prohibit an SAB member from participating in “advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work,” but does not clearly define what indirect involvement means. “Determining the practical meaning of “indirect” involvement will be difficult and consequently problematic to implement,” writes the OMB. The bottom line on the bill is that its provisions could mean excluding scientists from the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards in order to meet its membership requirements. In the White House’s view, H.R. 1422, would also add additional requirements that could make it harder for the science panels to carry out their work.
Rep. Stewart told The Hill that the measure would ensure the advisory boards would held accountable. Speaking to The Hill from the other side of the aisle was New Jersey Democrat, Representative Rush Holt who said, “While it sounds good to say you are increasing transparency, in reality this simply strengthens the role of special interests’ biased interests in the process.”
House passes “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014” – White House threatens veto
The White House has also threatened to veto H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014 that OMB says would, “impose arbitrary, unnecessary, and expensive requirements that would seriously impede the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ability to use science to protect public health and the environment, as required under an array of environmental laws, while increasing uncertainty for businesses and States.”
The bill passed Wednesday afternoon, November 19th, 237 to 190, also largely on party lines with one Republican voting against the bill and 8 Democrats in favor. An amendment offered by Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) that would have, within the bill, allowed EPA to use all peer-reviewed scientific publications failed 230 to 194.
H.R. 4012 would, as summarized in a House report, “prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”
Yet in OMB’s view, “H.R. 4012 could be used to prevent EPA from finalizing regulations until legal challenges about the legitimate withholding of certain scientific and technical information are resolved. The bill also could prevent EPA from making crucial decisions, including those concerning the cleanup of contaminated sites, if the data supporting those decisions cannot, for legitimate reasons, be made publicly available.”
OMB explains that if, for example, some important scientific data is subject to confidential business information provisions the bill could be used to prevent EPA from taking any action based on the protected data. “In short,” writes OMB, “the bill would undermine EPA’s ability to protect the health of Americans, would impose expensive new mandates on EPA, and could impose substantial litigation costs on the Federal government. It also could impede EPA’s reliance on the best available science.”
In a blog post published on The Hill’s public health page, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called H.R. 4012, “an insidious attack on the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect the health of Americans and the environment.” The bill’s “true intent,” writes Rep. Johnson, “is to delay EPA action because that is what industrial polluters want. H.R. 4012 is not only bad for public health, but it is also bad for the taxpayer. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the bill as reported would cost American taxpayers as much as $1 billion dollars over four years.”
H.R. 4012 was sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ). All 53 of its co-sponsors are Republicans.
A third bill, that – like H.R. 4012 and 1422 – may portend what we’ll be seeing more of in the 114th Congress when it comes to science is H.R. 4795. This is the Promoting New Manufacturing Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who, speaking to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, called the measure “a bi-partisan jobs bill.” The bill, which has entirely Republican co-sponsors, passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee 30 to 19. The White House OMB said in a statement that the bill “would impose arbitrary and unnecessary requirements that could weaken the public health and environmental protections of the Clean Air Act (CAA) and would increase uncertainty for businesses and States.” The OMB is recommending a veto on this bill as well. According to the Times-Picayune, H.R. 4975 is slated for a vote on Thursday November 19th.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.